Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ninety-Four, Part Twenty-Three: Wherein the place I got to did not seem a lot like the place I left.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. From time to time, I'll recap that year. This is part 23 click here for a table of contents.

Among the things I always wanted to experience are some unusual goals. I've always wanted to live through a flood -- to see my town under two or three feet of water and people boating past my front door. I've always wanted to know what an earthquake feels like.

And I always wondered about jet lag, at least until I got to actually experience it.

Morocco is, surprisingly to me, only 5 hours ahead of the time I was used to. It seemed then, and seems now, like it should be more, like Morocco, because it is half-a-world away in space and something like three worlds away in culture, should be further off in time than just five hours. When it's morning in Wisconsin, it shouldn't (it feels like) be afternoon in Morocco. It should be, I don't know, two days later or something.

(I feel the exact opposite about Australia, which I believe is on the other side of the International Date Line, so that in Australia it's tomorrow, and not only that, but it's winter when it should be summer, and vice versa. That doesn't seem right for Australia, which is only a little bit different, overall, from the United States. Australia should have the same seasons as us, and be, say, five hours ahead or behind of Wisconsin, leaving "opposite seasons" and "claiming to be tomorrow when it's obviously today" to countries like Morocco and China, because then the time zones would serve as an accurate indication of how different the countries were from us.

We landed in Morocco at a time that I remember as "obviously in the morning," because our flight had taken off from New York City in the afternoon or evening, and we'd flown through the night to get to Morocco, and I'd slept for a while at least, and then woken up to this country where the sun was shining and the Atlantic Ocean was on the left, instead of on the right where it should have been.

So it felt like morning to me, but as I got off the plane at the airport in Rabat, I realized that something was wrong; the world looked not exactly the way it should have.

There are times when the world looks a certain way. An example that always springs to mind when I think of how the world looks at a given time is the "late fall sunshine." Late fall sunshine has a special quality to it: It's brighter and more direct than sunshine at other times of the year. It practically shoots down through the atmosphere, unhindered by leaves and other detritus of summer, and illuminates the ground like a spotlight. Shadows seem better-defined in the fall than they do at other times of year. The sky seems emptier. The whole business of Late Fall Sunshine appears to be both a threat and a mockery: It's sunshine that's too bright without making things seem warm at all. It's sunlight that doesn't leave comforting shadows to rest in on the ground. Instead, it's sunlight that appears to be on its last dregs before succumbing to winter.

While that's the best example I can think of for the way things look at certain times, all times have a certain look and feel to them, including morning. Little clues around us give signals to our body about the time of day and time of week and time of year, and if you were to fall asleep and I were to spirit you off to some other part of the world and wake you up, you could probably tell, pretty quickly, about what time of the day it was.

(I think that about what time of day it is and about what the weather will be like are precise enough measurements for almost all of humanity almost all of the time. While at times it's important to be specific about time -- like if I have a doctor's appointment at 2 p.m. - and at times it's important to know precisely what the weather will be like -- like if you're going to be sailing a boat -- most of the time if you say "evening" or "morning" you'll be fine. Society would be a little more laid back if we all said "I'm having a barbecue. Come over in the afternoon." And society would be more laid back, too, if we let weathermen avoid having 20 minutes of every newscast to fill, and instead allowed them to say "Tomorrow's weather will be a lot more like today, only a little moreso.")

When I landed in Morocco, that part of the brain designed to do that picked up on things being a little off and so even though I couldn't put my finger on it, I knew that it wasn't morning, and I began, that moment, to experience my first-ever jet lag.

Then again, maybe I'm overstating it. Maybe my subconscious had nothing to do with it; instead, maybe my conscious mind was just telling me that things were very very different, all of a sudden, as we left the airport and I saw things like this:
If you travel around America, and I suspect if you travel around much of Europe, and if you are an American and/or a European, then you are very unprepared, in my opinion, for the experience of landing in a completely foreign country. I don't mean in a sort-of-foreign country, or a different state. I mean completely foreign.

As an American traveling around the United States, things are never that much different. The scenery takes a long time to change in America. Drive from Wisconsin to Arizona, as I've done, and you'll spend a lot of time in gently-rolling-hills dotted with trees and suburbs, and slowly you'll realize that the hills have faded away and the ground is flatter; the trees are more sparse and there are more wheat-looking fields, tall grasses or corn or other plants. About when you realize that, the fields themselves will slowly merge into drier plains, almost-deserts, rocks and scrub and almost no trees, and wide vast expanses of land where you can see 10 miles to the horizon, and by the time you've absorbed that, you're in the mountains. But it all happens so slowly that it feels natural -- at least if you drive instead of flying.

But aside from the changes in the landscape, and maybe some architectural points, when you get where you're going it's going to seem a lot like where you left. The people will mostly look and dress the same. The language is the same. The food is the same. Turn on the TV and you'll see the same TV shows you watched that night. The newspaper is different but it still has a picture of your president on the cover. (And if you subscribe to USA Today, the newspaper may not even be different.)

Travel to a kind of foreign country and I expect that the similarities, again, aren't that big of a deal. I've only been to Canada, in this category, and then only just across the border (where Sweetie insulted the locals), so I'm not a good judge, and most of what I believe about foreign countries comes from Hugh Grant movies. But it doesn't seem to me to be earth-shattering if you get off a plane and the people still look like you and the buildings look like buildings and the food looks like food, even if in some of those places the people don't speak English. It just doesn't seem that far removed -- going to England, or Germany, it seems to me, would be like being in one of those episodes of The Twilight Zone where a guy wakes up and everyone is left-handed -- it takes him a while to realize it, and it's weird, but it's hardly that big a deal.

Before I went to Morocco, I'd never left the country at all, and so I wasn't prepared for real foreign, which looked like that picture above and like the other pictures in this post (they're my own pictures.)

I wasn't prepared for the place I got to, to be so different. The people were different, the cars were different, the plants were different, the architecture was different... nothing looked like it was supposed to look, and maybe my mind just looked at that and decided well, this is no good, we've got to adjust.

So it might not have been jet lag but instead cultural lag that had me feeling disoriented as we regrouped and got our luggage and headed off to an orientation to meet our host families and see where we'd be staying for the first week of the program.

That was one aspect I'd paid little to no attention to in signing up for this program -- one of many aspects I'd paid little to no attention to: That I'd be staying with a host family, that I'd move into a house with a Moroccan family for the first week before going to the dorms at the university where we'd stay.

The idea, apparently, was to really immerse us in Moroccan culture for the first week or so, get us to know some local people and give us a glimpse of Moroccan life before we began kind-of-being schooled and living like students again. But the fact that I'd be living with strangers hadn't registered on me, at all, until we were getting our stuff and finding out who we'd be living with and how, exactly this would work -- something I still wasn't entirely sure of as we drove through the capital city of Rabat, the group leaders heading to drop us off at our host-families houses (or, in my case, apartment).

I'd never heard of Rabat, either, before going to Morocco, and I'd like to say, now, looking back, that I remember all sorts of things about Rabat and learned a lot about it as the capital city of Morocco where I mostly stayed when I was there. But I knew then, and know now, almost nothing about Rabat, beyond this: It's a very pretty city. It looked like this:

When I drove down the main street, like California only with more Arabic influences. Everywhere I went in Morocco, it seemed, it was sunny and warm and bright and dry (I don't recall many cloudy days, and I don't recall rain at all.) I was there in the summer, and Morocco is in the same northern hemisphere as the U.S., so it was summer there. Morocco is more-or-less on the same latitude as Washington D.C. and Florida, so I suppose I should have expected the climate to be similar. I expect, based on reading things here and there, that the fact that Morocco lies on the eastern side of the Atlantic means something -- that the Gulf Stream or something affects its climate, but I don't know (or care) about those things, really.

I did like the way the city looked, as it sunk in to me. I liked all the white rock or brick used, I liked the way the trees and plants looked, and I liked the way the houses and buildings seemed so foreign -- blocky construction and no roofs or other accoutrements like I'd expect. I liked that some of the people, at least, were dressed differently -- foreignly. I tried to see everything as we went by, looking at the people and the signs in Arabic and the streets and the cars, and I was so intent on noticing everything that I didn't notice everything.

One thing I didn't notice right away was how dirty the city was -- especially for a capital city. I've now been to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Houston, Albuquerque, Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York City, among the major cities I've spent time in, and none of them were as dirty as any city I saw in Morocco. We may think that Americans litter a lot (and we probably do) but when Americans litter, it's not done with the same volume or casual abandon that the litter implied in Rabat and elsewhere in Morocco. I didn't notice it at first, but I would, over time, realize that there was garbage everywhere. In the streets, on the sidewalks, behind alleys, even floating in the ocean: At one point, I'd go to a beach near the village near the university where I stayed, and there was garbage, and a lot of it, floating in the water, plastic bags and bottles and gunk, all drifting there. I don't recall seeing public garbage cans or anything like that in Rabat, and certainly not on the beach. Here in the United States, I pass two or three garbage cans per block, and when I went to a beach in Florida two years ago, I didn't see a single loose piece of trash -- not even something blowing away carelessly or accidentally.

I didn't notice the garbage at first because there was so much else to notice. The first things that caught my eye were the things shown here in the pictures: A tower for a mosque, above all else. Mosque towers dominate the landscape and city-scapes of Morocco in a way that's hard to understand. It's not that they're more prevalent than churches in America; we have more churches around, even in a city like Madison, Wisconsin, than you could shake a stick at.

It might be that while we have lots of different styles of churches, from traditional steepled-building churches to giant, glass-fronted Mall-of-God style-buildings, mosques all appear to be about the same, so that they stand out more by being all similar, but that's not quite it. I think, instead, it's that the mosques are bigger and more ornate than almost every other building around them. Rabat was a low-slung city: there weren't many high-rises and there weren't many large-seeming buildings, so the mosque towers stood out (as they probably were intended to do) above the block-like buildings surrounding them.

(The actual mosque pictured at the top of this post is not in Rabat; it's the world's largest Mosque, located in Casablanca, a city we'd visit not long after arrival.)

The streets, too, seemed different. That was partly owing to the cars. Most of the cars looked different enough that, while I recognized them as cars, they weren't recognizable as cars I knew. This was 1994, which was about the time that all cars started looking more or less the same in the United States; the era of individualized cars had ended and every new car was becoming Ford-Taurus-shaped back in the U.S. But even without that trend, cars in the US were recognizable even to someone like me, who didn't know from cars.

Not so the cars in Morocco, which tended to be smaller and boxier than many "American" cars I saw, and which appeared, on the whole, to be more run-down and dustier and older than almost every car I'd seen back home. Much is made of the American tendency to over-cleanse and over-perfume; judging by commentary about it that I've read, Americans are obsessed with showering and cologne and body sprays and things, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone point out that the same thing applies to our cars, as a whole. Americans' cars are immaculately kept-up, compared to third-world cars. Our cars are newer and cleaner and bigger, and it can't all be because Morocco has deserts there and is a pretty arid country; even in the Southwest of the U.S., cars almost always appear shiny and new and freshly-washed, or as close to that as possible. I associate (probably because my parents taught me to do this) dirty cars with being lower class, the same way I associate an unkempt yard and loud arguments with being low class. So to my eye, arriving in Rabat, the entire city appeared to be made up of low class people.

Then there were the plants -- those giant palm trees, completely unlike almost everything I'd ever seen. To that time, my travels had been confined to the US. While I'm sure that when I went to Florida with my family when I was 12, I must have seen palm trees (because they have those in Florida, I believe), I don't recall seeing this size of palm trees or the number of palm trees that they had in Rabat. (I also may not recall seeing palm trees in Florida because that vacation was marred by one of my parents' more-or-less continuous fights, a fight that got so severe that with three days left in the vacation my parents were not speaking to each other and were threatening to get divorced; our family drove home from Florida in a rush, separately from the aunt-and-uncle family we'd traveled with, and most of the trip home was done in silence as my parents implacably hated each other across the country. That was how many of our family vacations ended.)

The palm trees, so different from the deciduous and pine trees I'd grown up around, marked this as truly foreign (and warm) country, and the lushness of the plants around them, too, seemed to me to be tropical and thus foreign.

Among the mosques and cars and buildings walked people that were dressed differently than me and had different skin color than me, for the most part, making me a minority among them and further making the entire world seem exotic -- the styles ranged from very Arabic, robes and fezzes and the like, to just sort of exotic, the way foreigners appear kind of lame and exotic at the same time by wearing styles that appear similar to ours but are subtly off-key -- the shirts are the wrong color, or have the logo of a rock band that broke up three years ago, or the jeans have weird stitching. Nobody looked like the people I was used to seeing when I drove down the street. I'd only recently spent 5 months, remember, in Washington D.C.; Washington D.C. in 1994 was a city populated by 95% twenty-something white males in ties and white shirts. Almost everyone in Washington D.C. looked almost exactly like me. In Rabat, the only person who looked like me was me.

All of that kept me from noticing little things like the garbage. It was too different, too new.

But I also didn't notice the garbage at first, possibly, because I didn't want to. I was focusing on the excitement of being in a new country, a different country, and on how exciting things were going to be here -- how I was going to see amazing sights and do amazing things and learn a new language. I watched the buildings and cafes and shops and mosques go by and focused on them, remembering that I was the first person in my family ever to step foot on the African continent, the first Pagel ever to go to Morocco (or anywhere in Africa, and Africa really embodies the spirit of the exotic in my mind.)

I focused on those things so that I wouldn't focus on the fact that, as I said, I was going to have to spend the entire next seven days living with strangers who didn't (maybe?) speak my language. They were driving me to drop me off at my host family's house, and I did everything I could to try to ignore that fact. I didn't want to stay with strangers for a week -- I didn't want to meet strangers or talk to anyone, really.

What I wanted, at that moment, was to simply get out and walk around and acclimate myself to Morocco: Look at stores and things, take pictures, maybe try (hesitantly) a little local food or drink, get used to the country the way I would get used to a pool that's not quite the right temperature. I wasn't going to get that chance, though: I was going to get thrown in -- headfirst, as it were.

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